In the Hamptons, Christian Wolffer may be known as the German-born Lebenskünstler who owns Sagpond Vineyards, producer of a ’97 merlot that The New York Times pronounced “bottled pornography.” But a continent away, on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, the venture capitalist has become the Pacific equivalent of Ira Rennert, the mansion-building desecrator of Sagaponack.
Back in 1996, Mr. Wolffer’s company, Euro Investors, purchased a majority stake in the Sea Life and Waimea Falls parks by assuming the $12 million mortgage for the two attractions, which were on the verge of foreclosure.
But after angering the locals with his development plans for Waimea Valley, the last intact ahupua’a –valley-to-sea ecosystem–on Oahu, and after wrangling with the bank that holds the mortgage, Mr. Wolffer put the 1,875-acre preserve up for sale last year. When he got no takers at $25 million and then $19 million, Mr. Wolffer put the parks under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection here in New York to keep the bank from foreclosing on the properties.
Now, in an effort to wrest Waimea Valley from Mr. Wolffer’s control, the city and county of Honolulu are attempting to exercise eminent domain by condemning the property and buying it for $5.2 million, a price Mr. Wolffer called too low. “Condemnation you cannot fight,” he said. “The only thing you can fight is the conditions.”
“I don’t know if Christian Wolffer is an honest man or an honorable man, but he has simply worked on a course that is in direct opposition to the best interests of the Hawaiian people,” said Ralph Bard, a venture capitalist who lives on Oahu’s North Shore, where Waimea Valley is located.
But Mr. Wolffer told The Transom that what the critics are saying is “absolute rubbish. I’m a simple businessman. I bought two attractions in Hawaii for a healthy price, and we are trying to make the best out of them in a bad economy.
“We are maintaining everything we have to maintain,” he said, adding: “And it’s my park.”
Locals contend that gaining control of the land will be well worth the expense. The valley consists of approximately 80 million square feet of gorges, cliffs, forests, waterfalls and streams, as well as culturally and archaeologically significant temples, burial and living sites and the Waimea Arboretum and Botanical Garden, which maintains a number of endangered indigenous plants.
When the Waimea Falls Park first opened to tourists in 1974, it functioned largely as a showcase of Hawaiian culture, flora and fauna and was once Oahu’s third-largest visitor attraction. But attendance and revenues nose-dived in the 90’s. When Mr. Wolffer’s company took over, he envisioned 120 private cabins built on the valley’s floor, a wellness center and a tram that would whisk visitors over the treetops. He renamed it Waimea Valley Adventure Park (the name has since changed back to Waimea Falls Park), and marketed it as a place where visitors could take all-terrain-vehicle rides or scamper around a paintball range.
“The man didn’t realize that he’d bought one of the most sacred Hawaiian spots in the state,” said Scott Foster, director of communications for the Stewards of Waimea Valley, an ad hoc consortium devoted to the preservation of the area, who said Mr. Wolffer’s decision was like deciding to “put an amusement park in the Vatican.”
The amusement seemed to be coming at the expense of the park staff members who cared for the park’s botanical and archaeological elements, as well as the elements themselves. Mr. Bard alleged that the park A.T.V.’s were running through archaeologically significant sites.
Residents of Oahu’s North Shore began to organize.
“When New York developers with no connection to the cultural aspects of Hawaii come in here and just shit all over us, it kind of pisses us off,” said the Stewards’ Mr. Foster, who called Mr. Wolffer “a cultural vandal.”
“We have done everything right,” Mr. Wolffer said, and called the Stewards “a bunch of nonworkers who have no say. They’re just a bunch of critics. We’re trying to run a business.”
Mr. Wolffer had more pressing concerns than the Stewards, however. Last July, the Bank of Hawaii, which holds the mortgage to the two parks, said Mr. Wolffer had defaulted. But Mr. Wolffer, who had renegotiated the terms of the loan four times since taking over the parks, sued the bank, claiming that his company owed the bank less than $500,000 on the mortgage, not the $4.3 million it was claiming.
Then, in August 2000, Mr. Wolffer enlisted Coldwell Banker Pacific Properties to sell the entire 1,875-acre property as a private retreat. Asking price: $25 million.
The notion that some billionaire might attempt to close off Waimea Valley to the public and make it a Pacific version of Ronald Perelman’s Hamptons estate, the Creeks, “set off a firestorm,” Mr. Foster said.
But Mr. Wolffer contended: “We told the city five years ago that they should own the park. Only when we put it up for sale did the city start to evaluate the situation.”
As Honolulu and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs scrutinized the matter, Mr. Wolffer dropped his price to $19 million and walked representatives from Anheuser-Busch-owned SeaWorld through the park, but, at press time, no takers had been announced. Calls to the mayor’s office and to Mr. Wolffer’s attorneys in Hawaii and in New York went unreturned.
In April, Attractions Hawaii, the general partnership that owns the parks, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in New York. Mr. Wolffer said that he filed here because “I’m the owner and I’m sitting here.” Most of the company’s creditors were also based here, he said.
Mr. Foster said that the city is moving closer to acquiring the Waimea Valley via condemnation. If that happens, he said that the Audubon Society and O.H.A. might partner together to “fund the restoration.”
But Mr. Foster isn’t about to exhale yet. “You never know what the back-room political dealings are going to produce,” he said.
–Frank DiGiacomo; additional reporting by Petra Bartosiewicz
New Yorker, New Yorker
Since her college days, writer Cheri Coons has wanted to make a musical about the raconteurs of the Algonquin Round Table. “The play that they had with language is the sort of lyric writing that I really enjoy doing,” she told The Transom by phone.
This summer, Ms. Coons–who, at 42, is well out of college–finally realized her dream. She saw her Algonquin musical, At Wit’s End , debut way off Broadway at the Florida Stage in West Palm Beach, Fla. And now she’s set her sights on the Great White Way.
At Wit’s End opens with Alexander Woollcott, Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker, Helen Hayes, and George S. Kaufman singing and dancing around the table. “You edit my columns with a cleaver and a hatchet,” Kaufman brays at Woollcott, “I’m such a lucky bastard you’re my Scrooge and I’m your Cratchit. / Some days I get discouraged, some days I feel like quittin’/ / And then I see your byline over something that I’ve written.”
Ms. Coons’ play begins in 1919. Even though Woollcott, who was The New York Times’ theater critic, was a “sexual neuter” according to Thomas Kunkel’s Genius in Disguise , the biography of Harold Ross, in At Wit’s End he’s in love with Jane Grant, who was the first full-time female reporter in The Times ‘ city room. But Grant gets married to Ross, which would put an end to it if the three didn’t live together–which they did in real life, along with Hawley Truax, at 412 West 47th Street.
In real life, Ross told Grant to tell Woollcott to leave–”I don’t know why there always came a time with Aleck when you couldn’t stand it anymore,” Grant once said–but in Ms. Coons’ play, the scheming Woollcott departs of his own volition.
Ms. Coons combined this sexual tension with the drama of starting The New Yorker . The first issue bombed, but thanks to the last-minute generosity of yeast scion and Round Table member Raoul Fleischmann, the magazine stayed afloat.
“The end is bittersweet,” Ms. Coons explained. “Woollcott realizes the bad things he’s done and takes responsibility for himself.”
Setting all this to music was easy for Ms. Coons, who has written a number of musicals, including Phantom of the Country Palace . “The fact that people like Irving Berlin and George Gershwin were both members of the Round Table, I immediately heard in my mind what I thought the show could sound like,” she said. But making Ross–whom Grant once called the “homeliest man I’d ever met”–and rest of the Thanatopsis Pleasure and Inside Straight Club prance gracefully took a little imagination.
“Harold Ross was a cynical person, especially with regard to music,” Ms. Coons said. “He wasn’t a great fan of music …. And Woollcott, who is the most unlikely romantic figure–we gave him all of the love ballads in the show.”
Down in Palm Beach, Ms. Coons’ play was a hit. “I thought that the lyrics and music were very good. It’s a very fast-moving, clever presentation,” resident Morris Ball, 77, told The Transom. His wife, Roselyn, 74, agreed. “You’re always interested in how are they going to work it out as a musical. They did it very well,” she said. Mr. Ball added: “I was able to hear every word, and I don’t hear that well.”
Now Ms. Coons’ biggest challenge is getting At Wit’s End produced in New York. “We have a number of New York theaters reading it,” she said. “I’d love to bring it to Broadway.”
John Lahr, the drama critic for The New Yorker , was cautiously optimistic when he heard about the show. “Ross loved the theater,” he said. “Loved Broadway. I don’t think any magazine ever has had a stronger connection to a theatrical milieu than The New Yorker . I would have thought Broadway was Harold Ross’ natural habitat.” But Mr. Lahr also noted: “The difficulty will be making the lyrics as witty as the people.”
Or as Ms. Coons’ Harold Ross sings in the number “The Little Old Lady from Dubuque”: “We have the wit of Robert Benchley / The punch of Dotty Parker, / We’re as honest as the Gospel of Saint Luke. / Though our tone is somewhat posh, / We’re not above a josh, / But we’re not for the little old lady from Dubuque.”
Somewhere, Dorothy Parker must be clearing her throat.
Readings from Asbury Park
The rusted-out seaside town of Asbury Park, N.J., is taking another step toward economic recovery and cultural preservation by again honoring its most famous beach bum, Bruce Springsteen. Last week, the Springsteen fan site Backstreets posted an announcement soliciting contributions to the Springsteen Special Collection, which it plans to donate to the Asbury Park Public Library by Sept. 23, the Boss’ 52nd birthday.
“Suppose there was a place that did have it all–or, at least, had the world’s most complete collection of books and magazines written about Bruce,” read the Backstreets posting. “And suppose that place was in a real library, which you could visit. And it was in Asbury Park, NJ …. Well, this ain’t no dream.”
Robert Stewart, director of the Asbury Park Public Library, sounded like he was unprepared for the reality of such a collection. “Asbury Park isn’t a very big town. Our library is what you’d call medium-sized,” Mr. Stewart said, clearing his throat.
As a result, don’t expect the library’s Springsteen room to feature the latest in bootlegged concert recordings–an illegal but essential facet of Bruce scholarship. “As far as I know, it’s just going to be print material, because videos and CD’s and cassettes are a much bigger preservation problem,” Mr. Stewart said. He explained that the library is already slightly overwhelmed by the costs of preserving the printed material with tools like Mylar sheaths for magazines and acid-free boxes for papers products. “They all cost money, and Asbury Park is one of the poorest cities in the state of New Jersey,” Mr. Stewart said. “We’re in the bottom 1 percent poverty level and we don’t have the money.”
But won’t a shrine to Mr. Springsteen generate money? Mr. Stewart laughed. “It’s a prestigious thing for a library to have unique special collections because people come to use them for research, but generally they don’t produce income.”
As for the academic legitimacy of a library collection devoted to a man once called “the future of rock ‘n’ roll,” The Transom went to John Baky, director of La Salle University’s library, which recently made news for its Bob Dylan special collection.
Mr. Baky opined that unless the Boss himself got involved, the collection would consist mostly of “T-shirts and ticket stubs and flyers.” La Salle’s Dylan collection includes around 300 to 500 vinyl and cassette recordings, and another 600 to 700 books and magazines containing information and analysis about the folk singer.
“There’s no way that Springsteen is going to have, over a 50-year period, the kind of iconic nature that Dylan had,” Mr. Baky said. “He’s too derivative. It just doesn’t seem like the range of his material is wide enough to sustain the kind of interest we’re talking about.” Mr. Baky added: “You’re not going to find the kind of serious writings about Springsteen as might exist about Dylan.”
Then again, Mr. Springsteen never appeared on an episode of Dharma & Greg .
According to Backstreets’ list of materials already in the collection, there are currently 597 magazines, which according to Backstreets editor and publisher Chris Phillips “have been very well taken care of” by enthusiastic, not to say compulsive, collectors. They’ve got the July 1973 Rolling Stone Lester Bangs review of Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. , but are still looking for someone to donate the July 1985 edition of Muppet Magazine featuring the “Kermit Greensteen, Born in the SWAMP” cover. “We’re looking for stuff that’s in really good condition,” Mr. Philips said.
Lest anyone believe that there are no “serious writings” about Mr. Springsteen, the 62 books already in the collection include copies of Tramps Like Us: Music and Meaning Among Springsteen Fans , written in 1998 by Daniel Cavicchi and published by Oxford University Press, as well as A Race of Singers: Whitman’s Working Class Hero from Guthrie to Springsteen , a 2000 University of North Carolina Press book. And for the Germans, there’s Idole: Von Hibbing nach Asbury Park by Siegfried Schmidt-Joos, published in 1984 by Populare Kultur.
So stick that in your pipe and smoke it, Mr. Baky.
A publicist for Mr. Springsteen could not confirm that the performer was aware of the undertaking.
– Rebecca Traister
E.A.T. in Provence?
Sandwich king Eli Zabar might be able to wow Upper East Siders with his haricots verts (at $18 a pint) and potato dauphinoise ($15 each) at his Madison Avenue hangout E.A.T, but what will the inventors of les dauphinoises think? Gallic sources told The Transom that the walls of Café Le Progrès, in the picturesque village of Ménerbes, have recently been acquired by Mr. Zabar, who owns a vacation home in the village, and rumors have been swirling about as to what le milliardaire américain intends to do with le establishment . The café, which is smack in the middle of Peter Mayle country, boasts dramatic views of the Luberon mountains, as well as its very own in-house newsstand and mustachioed cafetier (the current manager, who is leasing from Mr. Zabar). And thanks to Mr. Mayle, throngs of Americans have taken to the region.
But local sources told The Transom that noticeable changes have yet to take place at Le Progrès, and that Provençaux might have to wait a little longer to discover the appeal of a New York bagel and lox. The sources said that Mr. Zabar’s purchase may have been motivated by nothing more than sheer altruism–an effort to keep his local café from being turned into a tourist trap. Reached at his Ménerbes home, Mr. Zabar declined to comment. The café’s manager, calling Mr. Zabar a “discreet man,” also refused to comment, adding that he didn’t see why an American couldn’t own his French café. A question, however, burned his lips. “So, he’s famous in New York, this monsieur ?” he asked. “He owns a lot of restaurants?”